January 19, 2022

Can the right mentality help leaders stay happy?

By Tony Boobier

Building on my review of a book on Mental Toughness, let’s explore what a positive mentality looks like for today’s leaders.

I’ve shared before the advice from Harvard academic Tal Ben-Shahar in his book “Happier. Beyond such psychological theory, I’m delighted to share the perspective of guest blogger Tony Boobier. In this post, he muses on what mentality will help leaders succeed.

Tony is an AI & Analytics expert, consultant and mentor for leaders navigating the transformation needed. He focuses on the global insurance industry, following his own executive experience. He has also shared with us before on topics including motivation, corporate blind spots & the scepticism that leaders need. Over to Tony to share his reflections on a winning mentality for leaders.

How can we really judge what goes on in the mind of a leader? 

In the dark days of the lockdown, I decided to write a short autobiography. This was an exercise not so much for the posterity of nations but rather to leave something for my grandchildren.

This was a recognition that by the time that they had questions to ask of me then either I would have forgotten the answers or, perhaps, might simply just not be around.  In any event, I had nothing better to do whilst others in so-called ‘higher places’ were partying.

I shared the draft with one of my kids. “That’s all very interesting,” said Chris my middle one “but to be honest it reads a little like a CV. What would be really interesting is why you made the decisions that you did.” 

The question ‘why’ is a much harder question to answer. 

Understanding why anybody does anything is a complex matter. George Orwell, when asked why he wrote, said that it was for three reasons. These were to capture history, to boost his ego and to create a thing of beauty. At an individual level, trying to get inside the mind of a leader is unlikely to reveal a single reason for making a decision. Rather it is likely to disclose multiple causes. Some of them you may empathise with, whereas others you might just plain disagree with. 

It’s as tricky to get someone to retrospectively justify a business decision with a simple answer. Usually, there are multiple elements, even if not all have the same weighting. To really get to the bottom of the decision-making process in any individual person requires specialist psychiatric skills which extend far beyond the simple attributes of this humble blogger.

Between 1982 and 2001, Dr Anthony Clare hosted a famous radio series called ‘In the Psychiatrist’s Chair’ in which he interviewed famous people and asked them the same question “Why?” Some of his interviewees such as Anne Widecombe the politician confessed afterwards of being uncomfortable with the process, describing it as ‘combative’. 

Based on his interviews, Clare also came up with what he believed to be the seven secrets of happiness.

Clare’s seven secrets of happiness (including for leaders).

  1. First,” he advised, “cultivate a passion (to get you through the bad times); 
  2. Second, be like a leaf on a tree (be part of something bigger); 
  3. Third, avoid introspection (which puts people off); 
  4. Fourth, do not resist change (change is both vital and inevitable); 
  5. Fifth, live in the moment (if you like going to the movies, go to the movies, if you dislike opera, avoid it); 
  6. Sixth, audit your happiness (check out if you’re happy half of the time; if not, change); 
  7. And seventh, be happy” (act the part and that alone can trigger change).

The recent political press has also commented on the idea that it is the mentality aka ‘mindset’ of a leader that sets the culture of an organisation. It’s difficult to argue against the suggestion that a motivated leader in turn encourages those around him. A positive can-do approach by those in charge is contagious and reassuring to those others who are part of the team. 

A call for self-awareness and the reality of self-doubt

Yet, at the same time, self-awareness also seems to be an important issue. Some leaders only hear what they want to hear. They are only told what they want to be told. This is a phenomenon that is sometimes known as the ‘knowledge bubble’ and happens when leaders make decisions without having a full understanding of the situation. Greater self-awareness demands that leaders mentally challenge themselves not only to question themselves on what they really know but also what they (and their advisors) should know.

But it’s not unreasonable to accept that leaders also have their doubts. Over 500 years ago, William Shakespeare identified the uncertainties of leadership as part of the mental process. He told of a troubled Henry V on the night before the battle of Agincourt in France. In the play, Henry anonymously walks through the camp and when questioned, describes himself only as a friend. In a short speech, despite his authority and responsibilities, he reveals that his doubts and inadequacies are no different to the common soldier. 

I think the king is but a man, as I am” he says (whilst in disguise) to his fellow troops Bates and Williams “the violet smells to him as it doth to me….Therefore when he sees reason of fears, as we do, his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish as ours are…”

Henry V, William Shakespeare

3 elements of a winning mentality (happiness, self-awareness & resilience)

Elsewhere in history, there are many examples of leaders having doubts. When Michelangelo was invited to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome by Pope Julius II he initially declined, saying that he was a sculptor and not a painter. Da Vinci also suffered from self-doubt and procrastination, leaving many projects incomplete. One of his diary entries asks “Tell me if I ever did a thing.”

It all seems to be a matter of attitude. Van Gogh who suffered from depression and self-doubt once said “If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.” 

So there perhaps is the essence of the mentality of leadership. For me, it seems to be a subtle blend of the suggestions made by Dr Anthony Clare about the pursuit of happiness, together with greater self-awareness, and both coupled with resilience to cope with the very human aspects of self-doubt. But then again, I’m only a simple blogger.

What have you learned about the mentality you need to succeed?

Thanks to Tony for more of his ever-insightful & entertaining musings. Now, what about you dear reader? What have you learnt about the mentality you need to be a successful leader? Would you cite resilience, positivity & self-awareness as mentioned by Tony?

Interestingly all those 3 elements appear in Prof Peter Clough’s model of mental toughness that I reviewed. Perhaps another validation that such a perspective is grounded in the practical reality of working with leaders, not just theory. Is working with a leadership coach helping you reflect on & adjust your mentality? It would be great to share resources that are helping other data & analytics leaders develop the mentality they need to win this year.